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The Top 10 Music Plagiarism Cases of All Time

By Richard Dahl on April 12, 2022 2:09 PM

Popular English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who prevailed in a music plagiarism lawsuit on April 6, says enough is enough.

Musicians are facing too many lawsuits from other musicians and songwriters, he said in a YouTube video following his win in a London court. These actions, he said, have money-making settlement as their sole goal "even if there's no basis for the claim."

Sami Chokri and Ross O'Donoghue sued Sheeran and co-writers of the 2017 hit "Shape of You," arguing that the "Oh I" refrain in Sheeran's tune plagiarized Chokri's 2015 song, "Oh Why." But High Court Justice Antony Zacaroli dismissed the lawsuit after concluding Sheeran "neither deliberately nor subconsciously" plagiarized.

In the U.K. and the U.S., songs automatically gain copyright protection after they are written. If a songwriter believes someone plagiarized their music, they must show that the alleged copycat did two things.

  • They must have had access to the song before they wrote their own song.
  • The copycat song must be substantially like the one from which it stole.

Those two requirements make it difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in music plagiarism suits, and that's what happened in Zacaroli's ruling. Musical coincidences "are not uncommon," and Chokri's song was "far from an obvious source" for Sheeran's song, the judge wrote.

But as Sheeran said: "There are only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidences are bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify."

The ruling was similar to a U.S. federal appellate court dismissing a lawsuit against pop singer Katy Perry for allegedly plagiarizing part of her hit "Dark Horse" from the rapper Flame's song "Joyful Noise."

The Top 10

There have been plenty of other musical "plagiarism" cases over the years. In light of Sheeran's win, it's a good time to take a walk down memory lane and look at some of the most interesting cases of all time:

1. The Chiffons v. George Harrison

The ex-Beatle scored a major hit with "My Sweet Lord" in 1970, which featured a melody similar to The Chiffons' 1963 hit, "He's So Fine." The writer of that song, Ronnie Mack, sued, and a U.S. District Court found that Harrison had "subconsciously" copied Mack's tune, but also noted that the two songs were "virtually identical" and ordered Harrison to pay $587,000.

2. Chuck Berry v. The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson never denied that the band's first big hit, "Surfin' USA," was anything but a tribute to rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry and his tune, "Sweet Little Sixteen." When Berry threatened legal action in 1963, the Beach Boys handed over publishing rights of "Surfin' U.S.A." to Berry, whom they revered.

3. Fantasy v. John Fogerty

This may be the strangest music copyright case in history. John Fogerty, the former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, hit it big as a solo artist with "The Old Man Down the Road." CCR's old record label, Fantasy, sued, saying it sounded too much like the old CCR song "Run Through the Jungle." The twist: Fogerty wrote "Run Through the Jungle" himself. In other words, he had to prove that he wasn't sounding too much like himself. He brought his guitar to court to demonstrate the differences between the two songs and prevailed.

4. Slipknot v. Burger King

This might be the second strangest music copyright case. In 2005, Burger King introduced a new product called Chicken Fries and launched an ad campaign featuring a fictional metal band called Coq Roq to support it. Slipknot, known for its members' use of scary masks, threatened to sue BK on the grounds the ads were ripping off Slipknots' own brand. Somehow, Slipknot wasn't fazed by the fact that the Coq Roq guys were wearing chicken masks that were more funny than scary. When cooler heads prevailed, Slipknot dropped the threatened lawsuit.

5. The New Seekers v. Oasis

Oasis' 1994 debut album included the song "Shakermaker," which sounded a lot like The New Seekers' uplifting 1971 tune, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." Oddly, that old tune started as a jingle for Coca-Cola, and Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher intended the song as a cultural tribute to his own childhood. It didn't matter to The New Seekers, and Oasis settled the case for a reported $500,000.

6. Queen and David Bowie v. Vanilla Ice

David Bowie and Queen teamed up for the 1981 smash hit "Under Pressure." Nine years later, the bass line in that song appeared as a sample in rapper Vanilla Ice's song, "Ice Ice Baby." The rapper ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum after Bowie and Queen sued.

7. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan v. De La Soul

In 1989, the hip-hop group De La Soul's track "Transmitting Live From Mars" contained a sample of the first four bars of the 1969 Turtles song, "You Showed Me." De La Soul gained approval to include samples from other artists on the album "Three Feet High and Rising," but the Turtles' bit fell through the cracks. Turtles members Volman and Kaylan sued, and the parties ultimately settled the case for a reported $1.7 million.

8. Lana Del Ray v. Radiohead v. Albert Hammond

In 2018, alternative legends Radiohead threatened legal action against American singer Lana Del Ray over similarities between her song, "Get Free," and their first big hit, "Creep." Despite Del Ray's claim that she'd been sued, Radiohead's publishers said they never filed a lawsuit and Del Ray announced, without further explanation, that the legal dispute was "over." The ironic twist: Radiohead was successfully sued for plagiarism by songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood over Creep's similarities to their tune, "The Air That I Breathe," a 70s hit for The Hollies. Hammond and Hazlewood are now credited as Creep co-writers.

9. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams v. Marvin Gaye

In 2013, singer-songwriter Robin Thicke wrote a song, "Blurred Lines," featuring singer Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I. It sounded a lot like "Got to Give It Up," a 1977 song by R&B/soul great Marvin Gaye. Gaye's family sued and prevailed when a judge ordered them to pay Gaye's estate $5 million in 2018.

10. Marvin Gaye v. Ed Sheeran

Yes, those two again. Late producer Ed Townsend co-wrote the Gaye tune "Let's Get It On," released in 1973. When Sheeran's 2016 "Thinking Out Loud" became a big hit, Townsend's estate sued for copyright infringement. That suit was dismissed in 2017. In 2018, however, another group that claims partial ownership of the song's copyright sued Sheeran for $100 million. In March 2021, a judge denied Sheeran's motion to dismiss.

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